Delivering Bad News for a Living: The Importance of Self Care

By on Monday, June 9, 2014

The Atlantic has an interesting story, “What It’s Like to Deliver Bad News for a Living,” by Carrie Seims on people who deliver death notifications, upsetting news, and fire people en masse – and the negative impacts these roles can have on their lives.

Seims cited research from 2006 (human resource managers tasked with firings amid rapid downsizing) and again in 2006 and in 2013 (oncologists forced to deliver bad news to patients) showing the negative impacts that being a deliverer of bad news can have. Feelings of depression, guilt, anxiety, stress, increased burnout rates, cortisol levels and emotional exhaustion were not uncommon.

At the same time, she also finds (at least one) person who notes post-traumatic growth can happen, even after delivering terrible news.

“I wouldn’t have seen the intensity of the colors of life if I hadn’t been a part of this,” said Denny Hayes, a human services director for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in Syracuse, N.Y., who has personally delivered more than 500 death notifications. “It’s been a rich experience—rich can be sad. Meeting someone in the midst of a traumatic situation is like cutting a tree in half and looking at the rings and the growth—you see the resiliency of the human spirit…….You enter the arena of suffering with people.”

Unfortunately, death is a part of life, and we far too often don’t realize how frequently death is in the media and we are engaging with those who are grieving or traumatized. As uncomfortable as it can make us, traumatic events and helping those going through trauma can also help us grow and become something more than we were before.

As someone who has often assisted people dealing with trauma in how they engage with the media, I would agree there is a high potential for burnout for those supporting and engaging with trauma survivors. I am often trying to help someone find a sense of control, who is trapped in a situation where they may feel very little sense of agency or ability to control a situation. For me, it comes down to trying to help, that I am trying to help someone in trouble find a sense of control and give them options.

I am sometimes walking alongside a person who is coping with something terrible that altered life permanently for them. You can’t walk in that and not have it stick to you, and not have your own demons surface. Self-care in this field is extremely important, and The Atlantic delivers some important reminders for those who deal with difficult news to take care of themselves.


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